In Part 1 of this article, you learned how to begin your relationship with your miniature equine in a positive and natural way, and how “getting down” to their eye level so they can make eye contact with you discourages striking, jumping on you and other bad behaviors that are common when working with miniature equines. Be sure you have successfully completed the lessons in Part 1 before moving on to the lessons in Part 2 or training may not yield the desired positive results. Also, if possible, it is best to work minis in groups if they are used to being with other equines, as they perform better when they are with their “friends” and it doesn’t hurt to train their friends in the same way.
Let’s begin with something you and your mini will experience on a regular basis: a visit from the farrier. First, lead your mini to the work station (as described in Part 1). When you get to the work station, tie up your mini and sit on the floor with him (as you did in the pen). Now you will be having a “picnic” (as you did in Part 1), but this time you will be in the work station and you will have a guest…the farrier. Before the farrier attempts to pick up the first foot, ask him to sit down beside your mini in front of the shoulder on the left side and offer a handful of oats as a way of introducing himself. Next, while you sit at your mini’s head and offer the oats reward for good behavior, have the farrier begin with the near side (left) front foot and work his way around from front to back, and then from back to front on the other side (right). While the farrier is working, talk calmly and encouragingly to your mini, and as long as he is doing what is asked of him, offer rewards generously. He should yield his feet easily, but if he does not don’t offer the reward until he complies.
Don’t shove your mini when you want him to move over. Rather, give him some oats and use your index finger to tap or poke him on the side of his ribcage. If he doesn’t move over, use your whole hand to give him a slight push, always using a “push and release” movement, which is non-confrontational. You don’t want to keep steadily pushing up against him, because as soon as you give him anything to push against, he will and you could find yourself in a pushing match or, worse, a confrontation with him. As soon as he complies and moves, give him the oats reward and slide your body in next to him to help hold him in position for the farrier as he works with each foot. Don’t be afraid and always stay on the same side as the farrier. If the mini decides to make an abrupt move, he will try to slide around you because equines really don’t like stepping on, or running over, soft, squishy things like our bodies, so if your mini can get out of your way, he will. Even if he was to jump up in the air, he would more than likely jump over or around you, taking the path of least resistance. Trust your mini, stay calm and avoid becoming tense or exhibiting fear and things should go smoothly.
Once your mini is leading well, has accepted the farrier and is ready to investigate obstacles, you can begin to take him for walks and see how many different things you can investigate together. At each obstacle, be polite and tug on the lead rope only until it is taut, then wait for your mini to respond. If he balks and you need to keep hold of his lead rope because of potential danger, just let out the slack on the lead rope and allow him to take a little more time going through the obstacle. If you are negotiating something like ditches or water and your mini balks, lengthen the lead rope to get to the far side of the obstacle and hold tension on the rope until he complies and comes forward over or through the obstacle. If leading two minis and one of them balks, lengthen the balky one’s lead rope and let it lay out on the ground while you take the more compliant mini through the obstacle. Then let go of the first mini’s lead rope and pick up the lead rope of the balky one, holding the tension until he negotiates the obstacle and joins you and the first mini on the other side of the ditch or water.
This approach becomes particularly important when negotiating something like a dock or a bridge where you are not only dealing with an obstacle, but an obstacle that makes you substantially taller than you already appear to your mini. This is another instance when you can “get down” on your mini’s eye level the way you did in the pen and at the work station. Remember to do things in small steps. When you walk onto the surface of the dock or bridge or any other large, flat surface, leave enough room for your mini to come up. When you get to the end of the lead rope, take up the slack and then sit down and offer the reward. Then, once your mini has negotiated the obstacle, give him the oats reward and just have another picnic. If a companion equine is accompanying you, be sure to tie the companion animal in front of the obstacle so your mini can always see him. If you tie him behind, your mini will worry and want to go back instead of forward.
When you are ready to step down off the dock or bridge, it would be unsafe to be lower than your mini, so at this point you should stand up, go to the end of the obstacle and ask him to come forward off the raised obstacle, making sure he has plenty of room to come off the obstacle without you having to move. Stand quietly and keep the lead rope taut as you verbally encourage him and invite him to come down off the bridge. As soon as he jumps down, ask for a halt and reward him for jumping down and stopping right in front of you. (He will learn to negotiate the obstacle more slowly with practice.) Once he has finished negotiating the obstacle and halted and is chewing on his reward, you can then proceed to the next obstacle. Having definite, purposeful and timely pauses will help alleviate anxiety and resistance in your mini.
Be vigilant about when it is safe to get down to his level and when it is better to stay standing. Always opt for the low-level eye contact whenever possible and when you determine that it is safe to do so. Remember, the longer he must go without making eye contact with you, the greater the chance of resistance, but eye contact on his level will give him confidence in your judgment and will help to facilitate a real bond between you. If negotiating an obstacle such as a tractor tire or six tires, just extend the lead rope over the tire or tires, sit on that side, keep the rope taut and proceed as you did with the bridge obstacle.
Allow your mini to come forward and look at the tire, put his nose in the middle of it and, if he wants to, put his front foot up in the air to “feel” the space. If he wants to stand on the tire, that’s all right, too, but remember to keep the rope taut and don’t pull—release pressure as soon as he begins to move. Pulling is a common mistake that people often make, which can easily throw an equine off balance, creating a dangerous situation.
I call this technique “OATS.” (Observe, Approach, Touch and Sigh). It allows your mini time to observe each situation, then approach and touch the obstacle, finally giving a sigh as a signal that he is relaxed and not afraid. Always reward him for his efforts so he can begin to gain confidence and trust in you. By following the OATS technique you are turning your mini’s fear into curiosity, which will serve to keep him calm in future situations.
Part 3 of this article will cover negotiating obstacles with more finesse, lunging and groundwork in harness.
Miniature horses, donkeys and mules all have one thing in common; everyone else is taller than they are! That makes eye contact with the trainer very difficult if not impossible for them. As the saying goes, the eyes are the window to the soul so it is understandable that they would become anxious if they are unable to look into a person’s eyes to decide whether they are friend or foe. I have five miniature equines: a mini horse named Mirage, a mini mule named Franklin, a mini molly mule named Francis, and two mini donkeys named Augie and Spuds. To help them all succeed and thrive, I’ve structured my training program for them based on the same one I use for all of my other equines, with one important modification. With safety always as my first priority, I work with my minis from a lower position whenever it’s safe to do so. That way, I can make eye contact with them, and I make certain they are always lavishly rewarded with an oats reward for their compliance. The results have been amazing! I’ve received total cooperation from them almost all of the time.
None of my minis were born at my ranch, so I knew that they would each first need to explore their surroundings a little at a time, and would also need ample time to get used to my staff and me. Mirage, the miniature horse, was my first mini. It wasn’t long after I acquired him that I acquired Franklin, the mini mule, who quickly became Mirage’s buddy. Since both Mirage and Franklin had previous training and because minis seem to accept training more willingly when done with a partner, we did all of Mirage’s and Franklin’s groundwork lessons together and, true to form, they learned very quickly because they were allowed to be together.
Several years later I rescued Francis, a miniature molly mule that was about as schizophrenic as they get. We penned Francis next to Mirage and Franklin for several months before I even attempted to catch her and begin her lessons alongside Mirage and Franklin. Giving her ample time to explore her own pen and to realize this was to be her sanctuary did wonders for her attitude and, after two years of very low-key training, she was able to perform calmly when we were filming the groundwork segment for the DVD, Equus Revisited.
Wherever I went during their lessons, I led all three minis together, and Francis learned to relax and comply with my wishes. I allowed her plenty of time to settle into her new surroundings before I ever asked her to come with Mirage and Franklin to the work station for grooming. The first time I was able to make real eye contact with her was during a walk we took in the hayfield in the middle of the summer. I took all three minis out to the middle of the hayfield, sat down while holding all three lead ropes and we experienced our first “picnic” together. Francis thought I was pretty scary when I first sat down, but she relaxed when she saw that it didn’t phase Mirage or Franklin. Just like human children, all equines learn better when not isolated (taken away from their equine friends) and made to feel that they’re being punished. Keeping this in mind, I lunged all three minis together in the round pen and after lunging, I tied two of them outside of the round pen while I did individual lunging and ground-driving lessons with each one individually. Because of this slow, respectful training and keeping her with her friends while she learned, Francis has made remarkable progress over the years.
I think it is critically important that all equines have a space they can call their own—their personal oasis of comfort and privacy—so when I got my mini donkeys, Augie and Spuds, I decided that the first thing they would learn about was their living quarters or, as I like to call it, their “bedroom.”
When you go to your mini’s pen, politely stand by the gate and ask “permission” to enter by simply calling his or her name and then waiting for a response. Your mini will most likely come over to you and “invite” you in by showing curiosity and giving you a welcoming look. As you can guess, it is probably your fanny pack full of oats that is really attractive to them, but they will soon learn that you come with the oats so they will no doubt be happy to see you. This is the very first step in reward training.
Begin your relationship with your mini by having a “picnic” with him. Sit yourself down on the ground in the middle of his pen and start playing with a handful of oats while you wait for him to come to you. While you have your picnic in the pen, use just your hands for contact and make sure you have plenty of crimped oats (I use a fanny pack full of oats). Because picnics are supposed to be fun and not intimidating, allow your mini to come and go as he pleases within the confines of his pen. When he becomes confident about coming to you while you’re sitting down, reward him for coming over and interacting with you. Be prepared for the possibility of doing dozens of lessons like this—however long it takes for your mini to build trust in you and feel comfortable. As your relationship progresses, you may try picking up his feet and stroking his legs (which is a good way to prepare your mini for the farrier visits that will come later). There are no expectations and there is no pressure to do anything more…it’s just your mini and you and time for bonding.
When your mini is comfortable with you coming into his pen and interacting with him, the next step is to ask him to go into a bigger turnout area, where you should repeat the same simple lessons. Now that your mini can be loose in a larger space, ask him to come to join you for another picnic. After a few times, bring a hairbrush with you (It’s the most efficient brush to use on donkey hair).
When you sit down and he comes over for the picnic, show him the brush and let him inspect it, and then reward him for inspecting the brush. When you introduce the brush to his body, do so by first petting him, and then follow where your hand goes with the brush. This has a calming effect and also helps you to identify the more sensitive areas on his body. Always start with his neck, where there’s substantial fatty tissue and no real sensitive areas until you reach the shoulder. During this “playtime,” you can get your mini used to strange things by allowing him to wear your hat. This is an extension of the imprinting (touch) your mini should have received as a foal, only with a foreign object instead of your hands. Remember, imprinting is not just for foals at birth. It is the way you will continue to learn about how to touch your mini throughout his life and how you learn which areas are more sensitive than others. This sets the stage for how you gauge your approach when touching your mini both with your hands and with foreign objects such as grooming equipment and tack at all levels of training.
A halter doesn’t even come into play until after grooming in the pen is easily achieved and your mini will follow you to and from the pen without the halter. When it is time to introduce the halter, bring it with you into the pen for your picnic. Do the brushing and then show your mini the halter while you sit on the ground. When he sniffs the halter, he should be rewarded. Once he is unafraid of the halter, hold it on both sides of the noseband, feed your mini some oats, and then gently push the noseband of the halter over his nose and then take it off, rewarding him again. At this point you’ve got all kinds of oats in your lap and your mini’s got his head down, eating the oats, so when you put the noseband on again, just reach over his neck, grab the strap of his halter on the other side, bring it behind his ears and fasten it. If done correctly, this should not bother him. Then reward him with more oats, pet him as he complies and say, “Oh, how good is that?!” You can then take the halter off again and end the first lesson there.
Once your mini is used to having his halter put on, let him graze while supervised in a larger pasture area with his halter on while he drags the lead rope behind him. When you want him to walk away from you, simply stand up and let him go off on his own. After a few minutes, approach him again, grab the end of his lead rope and sit down again. You can give a little tug, say his name and ask him to “Come.” He should come easily when you gently tug on his lead rope. This action makes him look at you and think, “Oh, my human is sitting down again, so I’m going to come over and get more oats!” As he comes toward you, take up the slack on his approach. Once he comes to you easily, you can stand up and ask him to come while you’re standing up and reward him for it. And that’s how to teach a mini to follow you.
During your picnics, put on and take off the halter over several lessons and until he is completely calm before you try to halter your mini at the gate in preparation for leaving the pen. He must be willing to come while you are standing, and he should allow you to put on the halter at the gate using the same rewarding techniques as you use while sitting down. When he accepts the halter at the gate, the next task is to learn to properly lead through a gate and make your way to the work station for the first time. (See “Gate Training” in Part 1 of my DVD series, Equus Revisited.)
When grooming at the work station, start working your way around your animal from front to back, but ignore grooming his head for a while until he’s really comfortable with you. When you finally get to the head, you will have to change to a grooming tool called a dandy brush. First let him see and sniff the dandy brush, and then begin with the forehead. Brush upward toward his ears with the direction of the hair on his forehead and then, if he stands quietly, give him a reward. Don’t try to do his cheeks right away—give him time in the same grooming session to get used to the feel of the brush before you try to brush his cheeks, and make sure he sees the brush coming at him. Anything he sees too abruptly with his peripheral vision can potentially startle and spook him.
Breaking things down into little do-able steps seems like a long process in the beginning, but as your mini begins to understand the reasoning behind your approach, his reactions to tasks will become calmer, more automatic and more natural for him. When you allow your mini to learn to follow your lead without the halter in the beginning of each task, learning to follow you on the lead rope will be a lot easier for him, and when you finally move on to more specific tasks in training, he will oblige you much more willingly. In Part 2 of “Getting Down With Minis,” I will cover how to approach the tasks necessary for formal training.
It’s summer time, and there are tons of adventures to be had for two mini donkeys on a bustling ranch like Lucky Three. Today, Spuds and Augie explore the hay field with Meredith and test their bravery against a fearsome, loud machine.
Hey, Spuds! I hear Meredith calling…what’s up?
She’s kinda silly, Augie. Who ever heard of saying “how do you do” to a swather, Augie?
Whoa….look what’s coming!!!
WOW!!! That’s super noisy and REALLY BIG!
Oh look, Spuds, it’s not so scary. This is how they make our hay!
Yeah, and look how they pick it up with this other big machine so they can put it in the barn!
What a fun adventure in the hayfield…we learned a lot today!
In Part 1 of Rock and Roll: Diary of a Rescue, we learned about the discovery and rescue of Belgian draft mules, Rock and Roll, by Meredith Hodges and her team of experts. As the pair’s rehabilitation continues, the road to recovery gets tougher. But for every health setback, there is a personality breakthrough with these courageous and now-trusting gentle giants—and always a reason to hope.
By May of 2011, both mules were beginning to bond well with me and I was able to separate them during workouts. I knew I would have to develop a strong bond with Roll in case Rock didn’t make it, and we all knew the odds were not in Rock’s favor. Being alone with me in the round pen helped Roll to concentrate on the tasks at hand. His way of going was markedly improving with each new lesson.
Both mules could now square up properly and move in a much more balanced frame, although holding that balance was intermittent. The personality of each mule began to emerge and they became more willing to play games and to be touched and kissed about their heads. Rock was much more overt about his pleasure during the massages, and we could finally tell that they were beginning to trust us.
By mid-June, we were able to take the pads off Rock’s back feet and reset the shoes without the pads. He had grown three-eighths of an inch of sole on both hind feet and the rotation began to improve in one back foot. Both mules were feeling much better and were actually engaging in play during turnout. Next, we discovered that due to the concussion to his rear feet from improper use during driving in the past, Roll had side bones in his right hind foot. This caused him to twist that foot as it grew out between trims, so we put shoes on his back feet as well.
Rock loved our newly acquired mini donkeys and, during turnout, he would stand by their pen for the better part of the day. Here they all are on the Fourth of July, 2011.
By that time, Rock and Roll both looked magnificent! Considering the extent of Rock’s past neglect and injuries, he had gained incredible muscle tone and balance. His eyes were bright and alert, his coat was shiny and his feet were much improved (although they still exhibited a hint of chronic founder).
Roll’s fat and lumpy body had changed dramatically. Now his body was more symmetrical and balanced, and he also sported a shiny coat and balanced feet. His eyes were alert and his appearance of laziness had completely vanished.
However, by the end of July, Rock once again began to lose muscle tone over his right hip and his front feet became very sore. We thought he and Roll may have been playing too hard, which could have caused Rock to injure himself again, so we separated them into adjoining pastures during daily turnout. At night they remained in their respective stalls and runs, side by side. Custom-made boots were ordered for Rock’s front feet to help alleviate the pressure, but unfortunately we had to wait until the first of November for delivery of the boots. By the time they arrived, they were of use for only about two weeks before the weather changed. The wet snow and mud became packed in the boots, causing Rock too much pain on the dropped soles of his feet.
While Rock was on three weeks of rest during August, he developed swelling in his sheath. He was treated with an anti-inflammatory for two weeks, but the swelling didn’t go down. Since his front feet seemed better, I decided to resume his physical therapy. Although the structured movement helped the swelling go down, it migrated to the midline of his abdomen. After two weeks of hot packing the abdomen twice a day, the swelling finally disappeared. Because Rock was becoming stronger and getting up and down more often, he was beginning to develop sores on his knees, fetlocks and hocks, and “shoe boils” on his underbelly (pressure sores caused by his hooves when lying down), all of which needed to be frequently tended to.
In September, once again there was swelling on Rock’s underside midline, which also seemed to cause him to get weaker musculature in the hips. The swelling was hot-packed, and it disappeared fairly quickly this time. By mid-October, Rock was lying down for prolonged periods of time—unhealthy for an equine—so his support team of three veterinarians, two equine chiropractors, his equine masseuse and I got together to assess his condition. All 2000 plus pounds of his weight was being shifted off his three bad feet and onto his left hind leg, causing it to track behind the right front when he walked. We decided on a regimen of phenylbutazone (a non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drug), minimal exercise, plenty of rest and icing of his feet for 15-20 minutes twice daily. Things were not looking good.
No matter what was asked of him, Rock always gave it his all. We babied him through turnout, chiropractics, trims, and massage, but it finally got to the point where we could barely get his back feet off the ground to apply the hoof dressing. We decided to remove his shoes. That day, he was so weak in the hindquarters we could not replace them and couldn’t even trim the feet without running the risk of him falling down. We waited a couple of weeks before we trimmed his heels with the aid of a custom-made, six-inch equine jack stand. That seemed to help through November and part of December, but Rock still needed the Thrush Buster and Rainmaker for hoof health. He was able to tip his hind feet forward and let us have the bottoms of his feet for a few seconds at a time so the medication could be applied. Finally, he just couldn’t manage having his feet elevated at all—the pain was too great. Around this time, we noticed that the swelling had again cropped up in his midline abdomen, which led to another week of hot packing it twice a day.
After Christmas, I decided to resume a modified version of his physical therapy. Trooper that he was, he tried with all his might, but his hips were listing terribly to the left, and the first time he went over the three one-inch ground poles, he crashed into every one of them. His third time over, he grazed just one. When I put him back in his pen, he immediately laid down. I then noticed the bulging in the coronet band of his left hind foot. He was “sinking!” We immediately called the vet and he confirmed my fear. The lamina was pulling away from the hoof wall and allowing the bones to “sink” through the sole of Rock’s hoof. It wouldn’t be long before the other feet would quickly follow suit. It was clear that he was in agony and would have to be put down, so our vet came out the ranch, loaded Rock up with anti-inflammatory and pain medications and said he would be back the next afternoon.
Every day for a year, I prayed for a miracle for Rock and each time I prayed, he got better. I now wondered if God would give us yet another miracle and let him live—but it wasn’t meant to be. On December 27th, 2011, surrounded by his Lucky Three family, our beautiful Rock took his last steps. We all knew it was time for us to let him go. Rock was euthanized at home and died peacefully, with his head resting in my hands.
My vet Greg Farrand informed me that the president of Colorado State University had pulled together a team for Rock’s necropsy and the preservation of his skeleton as a teaching aid for the CSU Veterinary Sciences department.
When the necropsy came back, it showed not a single fracture of Rock’s pelvis, but rather multiple old fractures in the socket of the hip joint. The bottom of the socket was almost completely gone and there was a hole the size of a dime at the top of the socket. The head of the femur had no cartilage left and there was fibrosis and cysts full of fluid the entire length of the femur stem.
I have come to realize that our courageous and noble Rock gave us more than one miracle. He had been able to live one more year of life with a severely shattered hip joint and compromised femur. He proved that our balance and core muscle therapy can work wonders! And he lived long enough to give his half-brother, Roll, the chance to bond with people who will love and care for him for the rest of his life. Thank you and God bless you, Rock. We will miss you.
Since I now have 16 equines, 3 donkeys, 12 mules and a miniature horse, it is not always convenient to bring them all up to the Tack Barn work station for grooming. I used to have 32 equines! As I get older, I find myself a lot busier (One would think it would be the other way around…LOL!). I am glad I have less animals to groom each week! My show days have long since passed, so I limit the training to those who need core strength tune-ups and simple pleasure rides around the ranch. Forunately, my routine way of management and training resulted in good behaviors and a willingness to comply with my wishes. Sometimes, to save time, I just fill a bucket with my grooming tools (Plastic human hairbrush, Johnson’s Baby oil, clippers, Cool Lube, scissors for ergots, Neosporin and Tri-Tech 14 fly spray) and groom them in turnout areas, or in the stalls and runs. I call them to the gate, give them a reward for coming and begin my routine grooming.
I start by clipping their bridle paths in the summer and fall. This keeps them from getting over-heated. I will let their bridle paths grow out in the winter and spring to keep the warmth within their bodies. Grooming gives them great pleasure when it is done correctly and politely!
They are always rewarded for cooperating during grooming, so they hang around and don’t wander off. I even reward the ones in the neighboring pens to reinforce “handing out.” I always clean ears, eyes and nostrils, and will do this daily with donkeys that typically have runny eyes. It isn’t their favorite, but they will tolerate it for the crimped oats reward! They all like to SUPERVISE the grooming of each other! They are pretty funny! It makes our time together very enjoyable!
I use my multi-bristled, plastic human hairbrush both to apply the lightly-sprinkled Johnson’s baby oil AND to go over their bodies as they are shedding. It gets all the way to the roots, flips out the dirt, and promotes a well-aerated, healthy hair coat. When the coats are short, I can use a dandy brush, or bring them up for vacuuming with yearly baths in July.
A common practice is to braid manes and tails to get them to grow longer. I have found that this will often cause the hair to break. Plus, it is difficult for the animals to swat flies with braided manes and tails. Quite simply put, it hurts! I use Johnson’s Baby oil during weekly grooming, sprinkled in the manes and tails. It does a good job of protecting the hair and doesn’t get as greasy as you might think. The day before a show, I bathe them with water only over the body and scrape off the dirt with a shedding blade. I only use Tres Semme shampoo and Aussie #X conditioner in the manes and tails. If I am going to show them, I let the manes and tails partially dry and braid them for overnight. When you take out the braids the next day, their manes and tails will be much fuller! Even the thinner and wilder manes on mules will respond positively to this treatment.
Lots of my animals are older and have issues with runny eyes. If I am not showing them, I will “cut their bangs” to keep the hair from irritating their eyes. Even when showing, I can trim the bangs so they aren’t cut straight across and look funny.
The minis are much calmer when I try to stay down at their level whenever possible. I gather the excess hair and remove it from the areas where I groom. If they decide to eat it, it could cause impactions. Better to be safe than sorry!
Although they are all fine with fly spray, this time, I am going to take pictures for this article so I am haltering them and tying to the fence. Then I will just go down the line and fly spray them all at once. They are very willing to stand the way I position them for the pictures. When I am done, I release them! Grooming is FUN!!!